This study investigated placental expression of the two main isoforms of the progesterone receptor and the regulation of placental and fetal growth by progesterone over the final third of rat pregnancy, the period of maximal fetal growth. Expression patterns of mRNAs encoding the two major progesterone receptor isoforms (PR-A and PR-B) were measured by real-time RT-PCR in the two morphologically- and functionally-distinct regions of the placenta, the basal and labyrinth zones, at days 16 and 22 of pregnancy (term = day 23). PR-A and PR-B mRNA expression was extremely low in labyrinth zone on days 16 and 22, close to the limits of detection. In contrast, the basal zone exhibited much higher levels of mRNA expression for both PR-A (> 10-fold higher than in labyrinth zone) and PR-B (3-fold higher at day 16). To assess the role of progesterone in placental growth, maternal progesterone was reduced from day 16 by ovariectomy with full estradiol replacement and partial progesterone replacement until day 22. Progesterone reduction lowered fetal (10%), whole placental (24%), basal zone (37%) and labyrinth zone (14%) weights at day 22 compared with sham-controls, whereas fetal and placental weights (both zones) were maintained in ovariectomised rats given full estradiol/progesterone replacement. The effects of progesterone withdrawal were not associated with changes in placental expression of either IGF-II or IGFBP-2, both important players in growth factor regulation of placental growth. Importantly, however, IGF-II expression remained elevated in the labyrinth zone but fell markedly in basal zone (similar to 7-fold) between days 16 and 22 of normal pregnancy, consistent with the growth patterns of these two placental regions over this period. (c) 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.